Commentary: Russell Westbrook always plays with stars. But will they align on the Lakers?

Russell Westbrook shoots a free throw at Capital One Arena in Washington on May 29, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

LOS ANGELES (NEW YORK TIMES) - Russell Westbrook is coming off one of his best seasons, having posted a career high in rebounds and another in assists that was enough to lead the National Basketball Association (NBA).

But his Washington Wizards barely made the play-offs and it was a perfect microcosm of the general debate about his legacy: It's not a sure thing that his style of play is conducive to winning basketball, even with his gaudy numbers.

And now he is with the Los Angeles Lakers, traded for the third time in three years. Former MVP Award winners like Westbrook typically do not play for four different teams in successive seasons while still putting up numbers comparable to when they won the honour.

He will again have superstar team-mates, this time LeBron James and Anthony Davis on an unequivocally so-called super team. On paper, this new iteration of stars assembled to chase a championship should easily compete with teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, the reigning champions, and the Brooklyn Nets, both of whom have star trios of their own.

This will most likely be the best chance he has had to win a championship.

Westbrook has not lacked for star teammates, but he has lacked the success that is expected to come with having them, and that may be an indictment of his style of play: high-volume scoring, weak shooting and elite rebounding that is devalued in favour of shooting. Some of this is also an indictment of the rosters he has played with.

But if Westbrook can't figure out how to win next to James and Davis, who won a championship with some of the players the Lakers traded for Westbrook, it will be a blow to Westbrook's legacy.

A large part of the issue with Westbrook is that he has been an inefficient scorer for much of his career. His career true shooting percentage - which accounts for free throws and three-pointers - is 52.8 per cent, whereas the league average is around 55 per cent. And he takes up a lot of possessions to score his points as a result.

His defence has also been suspect.

This is where his joining James and Davis makes for a fascinating, and potentially treacherous, situation. Two of the players the Lakers traded for Westbrook - Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope - were helpful defensively and with floor spacing. That meant they didn't need the ball in their hands to make their presence felt on the floor. Kuzma shot 36.1 per cent from three last season, while Caldwell-Pope was at 41 per cent. Westbrook's career average from three is 30.5 per cent. A data point helpful to Westbrook: Kuzma shot only 31.6 per cent from three in the Lakers' championship year.

The fit with Westbrook, James and Davis will be a mad experiment. Westbrook needs the ball in his hands to be effective, while James usually runs his team's offence. James' best teams have been loaded with shooters to toss the ball to when he drives into the paint. Davis is one of the most offensively skilled big men but, like Westbrook, inconsistent from three, at 31.2 per cent for his career. Even James is a career 34.5 per cent shooter from deep - around average.

This means the Lakers will presumably start three players who are not the most reliable shooters in today's NBA, which is so dependent on efficient offence generated by spacing. The Lakers have some counters with their other additions: Kent Bazemore, Anthony and Wayne Ellington - all of whom shot better than 40 per cent from three last season.

Westbrook's career usage rate - how often he uses possessions - is 32.51 per cent, second to only Michael Jordan in NBA history. James is fifth at 31.55 per cent. If Westbrook is using more possessions than James next season, something has gone terribly wrong.

For the Lakers to be at their best, Westbrook is going to have to take a back seat, and some players - think Allen Iverson - don't adjust well to that, because their skills and ego don't allow them to.

Players have steadily complimented Westbrook as a teammate. But does he know that he will have to watch the ball a lot more than he's used to?

With the Wizards last season, according to the league's tracking numbers, his usage percentage with Bradley Beal on the floor was about 26 per cent, compared with 33.9 per cent when Beal was off. For Beal, his rate was at about 29.8 per cent with Westbrook on, and 38.2 per cent with his team-mate off. But the Wizards didn't have a third player of Davis' calibre.

Westbrook will be helpful if he plays to his strengths. He is a relentless slasher and because of his ball-handling and penetration, he will create easier shots for James and Davis. He also pushes the fast break. The Lakers were 21st in pace last season, making them one of the slowest teams, while Westbrook's Wizards were the fastest.

Westbrook plays every possession as if he is trying to outrun a vengeful lightning bolt, and that's if he's not the lightning bolt himself. That will help the Lakers add a new dimension to their offence: Westbrook and James are among the best fast-break players the league has seen.

Westbrook's days of averaging a triple-double are most likely behind him. Davis and James are exceptional rebounders and playmakers, leaving less for Westbrook to put on his plate, at least statistically. But Westbrook's addition to the Lakers, as well as that of Dwight Howard and Anthony, makes this one of the most intriguing roster constructions in the past decade.

But if Westbrook is unable to gel with his latest batch of star teammates, the Lakers may end up being an ill-fitting, must-watch mess.